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How do you determine if a film is experimental?

Excerpt from Asparagus (1979) by Suzan Pitt

As the Call for Entries season gets underway each year, we receive many inquiries regarding our programming. One of the ones that is often heard is “How do you determine if a film is experimental?” Even though there are as many ways to answer this question as there are films being made, our hope is to shed some light on AAFF’s history and the guidelines that we follow in our screening process to inform everyone who is new to the Ann Arbor Film Festival of the types of film we have programmed each of our 58 years.

Defining experimental film is tricky.

Works that are experimental by AAFF standards typically have one or more of these qualities: they primarily explore the medium of film or video itself, they are not fundamentally narrative, and/or their dominant element is abstraction or lyricism. Another way to look at it is to consider the experimentation that was used in creating the film. With narrative and animation, we look for films that create space for ambiguity and complexity of thought, rather than stories that follow a conventional and predictable form.

We have a very broad interpretation of what constitutes experimental film.

The AAFF works to present cinema as an art form, outside the expectations and restrictions of cinema as entertainment. Since 1963, the festival has annually presented contemporary film works that express the original and individual vision of their makers. The films often include personal visions that break new ground through a deep engagement with their medium or the innovative exploration of a subject, whether familiar or marginalized. The films that interest us are not so much a “calling card” for makers with a single-minded aspiration to enter the film industry. Nor are they films that serve only to entertain or to demonstrate new techniques. The films at the festival might be entertaining, and often they are technically innovative, but these are not their sole or primary elements.

Even though films may be entered into any one of the categories of Narrative, Animation, Documentary or Music Video, the most important thing that we are searching for in the review process is whether or not the film could be considered experimental.

Many of the descriptions and guidelines presented in this article are the same employed by our screening group. With over 100 screeners reviewing material each year, we find it important to provide that clarification and guidance to the entire group. We meet monthly during the screening process to discuss films - a process which has defined the AAFF since its beginning.. At the end of each discussion we come back to the central question, “Is this film right for the AAFF?”

Sometimes, examples are the best way to get a sense of the types of films we are looking for. We would encourage you to look at the films programmed for previous festivals, or watch some of our tour programs, which are currently online. You can find award winners from the 58th AAFF here. Have a film you want to submit to AAFF? Learn more about our Call for Entries.


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